April 11, 2017 at 11:20 am PST | by John Paul King
Review: A sound “Encounter”

Performances of The Encounter are at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Bram Goldsmith Theater through Sunday, April 16, 2017. Photo courtesy Wallis Anenberg Center

There’s an antiquated British expression which describes a trip to the theater as “going to hear a play.”  This might seem a quaint concept in our visually-oriented modern culture; but when one considers that theatre is essentially constructed upon spoken language, and that all other aspects of stagecraft have evolved merely to supplement its power in telling stories and conveying complex ideas, it really makes perfect sense to think of a play as something more to be heard than seen.

Nowhere could you find a better illustration of this than “The Encounter,” currently in the middle of its limited run at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.  Ostensibly a one-man show about a photographer lost among an isolated Amazonian tribe, it’s a play so dependent upon the sense of hearing that each seat in the auditorium is fitted with its own set of headphones.  

The stage is bare, save for a utilitarian table, an office chair, a copious number of plastic water bottles, and several microphones- including a particularly large one shaped like a human head, standing at the center.  All of this emphasizes the importance of sound over sight, and presents a somewhat perplexing scene to the audience as they enter to take their seats.

As the lights go down, a single figure (Simon McBurney, the show’s creator as well as its solo performer) takes the stage; he explains that a binaural audio system will create a three-dimensional soundscape in which you will be immersed; he demonstrates the various effects and layers of sound, and tips you off to some of the trickery he will be using during the performance.  It’s almost like a magician giving away his secrets before he performs his act.  

One might fear that the show will seem less magical as a result, and that all the technological gimmickry will distract from the story.

It’s a needless fear.  

As McBurney segues into his narration, we are quickly absorbed.  Understanding the technology allows us to surrender to its illusions all the more easily, and soon our imaginations have been transported from the theater in which our physical selves exist.  We are in McBurney’s London flat, then in an airplane high above the Amazon Basin; then we are within the jungle itself, surrounded by its myriad noises.  

Finally, all these locations give way to an inner landscape which feels entirely and thrillingly real- and where we are invited to question our understanding of ourselves and the life we lead.
The above description is cryptic by design; it would be a disservice to the show to give away too much detail.  Suffice to say its plot is the saga of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer who was lost for several months in 1969 among a nomadic Amazon tribe.  His life-changing experience was later the basis for Petru Popescu’s book “Amazon Beaming,” which in turn became the inspiration for “The Encounter.”

 

This is not just a thrilling yarn, however.  

McBurney weaves his own ruminations into McIntyre’s adventure, building a multi-faceted exploration of life in the here-and-now even as he recreates a journey through the wilderness that took place nearly fifty years ago.  His show uses its cutting-edge technology not only to build its illusions, but to engage us with observations about time, space, and self; and though it invokes the power of the primal, it compels us to confront the contemporary with a sense of urgent activism that feels all-too-timely in our current political climate.
As for McBurney, he has built a reputation with his edgy London theatre troupe, Complicité (where “The Encounter” originated prior to its recent Broadway run), and it’s easy to see why.  His performance is more than mere narration; he takes on the role of the photographer, several other figures from the tale, and even himself; he does it all while effortlessly manipulating various pieces of audio gadgetry, and he never misses a beat as he guides us on this complex journey through his imagination.  

He is utterly mesmerizing.
It’s this, of course, which makes his play a magical experience: for all its high-tech methodology and its carefully-modulated manipulation of our senses, it is theatre in its purest form: an actor tells us a story, the world falls away, and we are led by his voice through an experience which excites, enlightens, and challenges us.  

That voice may be electronically enhanced, but at its core it is still a very human sound.  Likewise, though “The Encounter” may be hiding behind layers of technology, it is still the one of the most uniquely human plays you will ever have the pleasure to hear.

The Encounter
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Bram Goldsmith Theater
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA, 90210

Thursday, April 6 – Sunday, April 16, 2017
Performance Schedule: Tues – Fri at 8pm; Sat at 2pm & 8pm; Sun at 2pm

 

Single tickets: $25 – $100 (prices subject to change)
Online – TheWallis.org/Encounter
By Phone – 310.746.4000
Box Office – Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Ticket Services
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA, 90210

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